Pope Francis has called for a reexamination of how the Church treats Catholics who have divorced and (civilly) remarried. Because a valid marriage between baptized Christians is considered indissoluble, a Catholic who remarries after a civil divorce is living in open adultery and so may not take communion. A synod of bishops this October will lay the groundwork for all the world’s bishops to gather in 2015 and consider how the Church treats sex and marriage.
This new call has sparked enough conversation about prominent thinkers, from the New York Times’ Ross Douthat to this July 30 commentary by Peter Berger, to make me think that my two cents, my widow’s mite, is worth offering.
This conversation takes place in a particular context: first, the challenge to the Catholic Church to combine truth and love, teaching and mercy.
The overall trend in the Catholic Church has been to hold tight to dogma but retreat from discipline, leaving more matters to the individual conscience of the believer, who has presumably both the teaching of the Church and the door of the confessional always open for him to receive Christ’s forgiveness for his or her sins. Hence the American bishops have mostly resisted calls to refuse the Eucharist to pro-abortion politicians like Nancy Pelosi, and even disciplined priests who withheld communion from partnered lesbians.
I personally don’t think this dogma-without-discipline plan has worked that well, overall, especially given the failure of the Church to communicate its teaching to the children in its schools and to the people in its pews on Sunday, and sometimes apparently to priests in its seminaries. But nobody made me a bishop, and it is understandable, at least in theory, given the havoc the sexual revolution (not to mention consumerism) has wreaked in ordinary people’s lives.
But that strategy doesn’t work at all for the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics. Remarried Catholics cannot just go to confession for their sins, because they intend by their public act of remarriage to keep on sinning against their original vow.
Cardinal Kasper, appointed the point man by Pope Francis to make the case for change, proposes a twofold solution to this pastoral problem: Make the annulment process easier by dispensing with a trial process, and allow Catholics who divorce and remarry in a valid marriage to sincerely repent of failures and take the Eucharist with the blessings of Christ and his Church.
Here Cardinal Kasper explains in an interview with Commonweal:
But I cannot think of a situation in which a human being has fallen into a gap and there is no way out. Often he cannot return to the first marriage. If this is possible, there should be a reconciliation, but often that’s not possible.
In the Creed we say we believe in the forgiveness of sin. If there was this shortcoming, and it has been repented for — is absolution not possible? My question goes through the sacrament of penance, through which we have access to Holy Communion. . . . My question — not a solution, but a question — is this: Is absolution not possible in this case? And if absolution, then also Holy Communion? There are many themes, many arguments in our Catholic tradition that could allow this way forward.
To live together as brother and sister? Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian. That could also create new tensions. Adultery is not only wrong sexual behavior. It’s to leave a familiaris consortio, a communion, and to establish a new one. But normally it’s also the sexual relations in such a communion, so I can’t say whether it’s ongoing adultery. Therefore I would say, yes, absolution is possible. Mercy means God gives to everybody who converts and repents a new chance.”
Christianity is just too hard. Ordinary Christians can’t be expected to do it.
I have a confession to make of my own: This public debate within the Church saddens me, precisely because it was the Catholic Church’s teaching on life, sex, marriage, and especially divorce that pulled me back into the practice of my faith.
My mother left the Church in 1968, when I was eight years old. I came back to the Church in my late 20s, through a process of reflection on the very real consequences of the sexual revolution in my own life.
Is it okay to have an abortion? By what standard do we decide that some human life is not worthy of respect, and why do we do that? By the age of 18 it was clear to me, an unchurched atheist and recent disciple of Ayn Rand, that the reason most people decide abortion is okay is that abortion is necessary if we are going to live the way the sexual revolution tells us to.
To put satisfaction of our sexual desires and erotic longings ahead of the life of our own children seemed to me such a debased view of human nature that I became an atheist pro-lifer. Surely, somehow, we can do better than that, my 18-year-old self thought. That was my first act of faith.
My senior year at Yale, in 1982, I became pregnant out of wedlock, launching the next stage in my reflection. Within a few years of my son’s birth, his father (a fellow Yale student) announced he would have nothing to do with his son, and I watched as our son suffered from his absence. I was the most advantaged unwed mother in human history, and yet raising a child alone outside of marriage was hard — hard on me but, more importantly, hard on my son. It took years before he closed the door in his young boy’s heart to the question: Why doesn’t my Daddy love me?
This is when I made a second ethical decision: Surely, I thought, it is wrong to engage in the act that creates new human life if you are not in the position to give your children their father’s (or mother’s) love. Sex outside of marriage is wrong. I was still an atheist, at this time.
What brought me back to faith was when I really heard, for the first time, the Catholic teaching on marriage: not that divorce was wrong, but that it was impossible. Marriage changes reality, and it changes the identity of the people who enter it.
I was hungry for this, personally. Just as my son’s birth transformed me into a mother, a new identity that I could never relinquish, I wanted my future marriage to transform me into a wife, to have a relationship with my husband at least as real and as life-transforming as that which made me a mother. (I can imagine bringing the civil authorities in to protect me or my son from me, in some extreme circumstances, but I can never imagine that I could become “not his mother” — not called to find a way to love him, and to restore the relationship, if possible).
In our whole postmodern culture, the only visible witness to the reality of the connectedness between sex and babies, between love, mothers, and fathers, that I saw was the Catholic Church. And so I signed up.
The central error Cardinal Kasper is making is the same error the civil society made in embracing unilateral no-fault divorce: the idea that somehow a broad change in the rules of exit will affect only those in hard, extreme cases, leaving the general understanding of, and experience of, marriage intact. Not so. Were the Church to do as Cardinal Kasper suggests, it will impact me, and my children, and millions of other people who struggle to believe that love can be real, that marriage transforms.
So, with the humility of a child, I beg of the Fathers of my Church: Do not do this to millions of other hungry human beings searching for meaning in our chaotic world. Do not make our lives and our marriages harder. Do not deprive any of our non-Catholic brethren, either, of this unique witness.
What to do with teachings that are too hard for ordinary Catholics to follow?
I do have one modest pastoral proposal for the bishops: Reconsider the requirement that faithful Catholics separate and pursue civil divorce before beginning the annulment process. For surely it would be easier to rebuild your life in common, to remain true to your vow, if you found out the Church is calling you to sustain your marriage before you had separated bed and board, children and property. The tort of alienation of affection, which led the Church to make this novel requirement, has been practically eliminated in U.S. family law in most states.
By all means, let us find new ways to teach and to preach the basics of love, such as:
Don’t abandon your wife, or your husband, the one you chose out of all humanity and promised to love. Don’t kill your children. Don’t engage in the act that makes new human life if you cannot care for the children that may come. Don’t have sex outside a marriage that protects your children. Don’t bring a woman you love into any kind of irregular union that keeps her from God.
When necessary, choose love over desire. Have faith that any suffering that results is for the highest possible cause.
Such simple things, when did they become impossible to us? What sort of people have we become that we fear that abiding by them is impossible?
— Maggie Gallagher is a fellow at the American Principles Project. Her work can be read at MaggieGallagher.com.